FROM THE STANDS: Spring Practice – Skill Players

Congratulations to Jordan Spieth for winning the Masters. He went to Augusta and laid the smack down, leading wire to wire and setting course records for 18, 36 and 54 holes. He’s the second youngest player to win the Masters (Tiger was younger in 1997) and he’s the first player to reach -19 in Masters history. He birdied 28 of the 72 holes and was lights out from the beginning to the end.

And this is the beginning. Expect to see a lot more from the former Longhorn, both in the media and on the course.

Since baseball is barely .500 and Texas has now lost to ou in all three major sports this school year (football, hoops, and the 2-1 series loss in baseball), I choose to talk about them another time. Let’s jump right into the footballing, shall we? We shall.

Spring Break Down- The Skill Set

The Rick Barnes/Shaka Smart stuff threw my calendar off and I am catching up, so this week I am combining the running backs and wide outs together. I am not including this current group of tight ends with the skill guys, but that’s not a knock on them. I think, at this point, you’d have to consider them more offensive linemen than pass catchers, at least until Mr. Clarington gets here. So tight ends next week with the OL, and we’ll break down the spring game.

Thinking about the new offense, it’s going to change this group dramatically, like the quarterbacks. Texas wants this offense to be Oregon: run tempo (meaning get to the line quickly, snap quickly, execute the play and then start all over. Quickly) with a spread formation and run the football. They want to spread out the offense with four receivers and then run the ball, finding seams and gaps in that spread-out defense. They want to do this with the running backs, the quarterbacks and the wide outs via jet sweeps and reverses. Blocking outside will be at a premium because the receivers will be asked to wall off defenders and create alleys for the running game, and they will also be asked to run. And of course catch. Expect to see more throws to the backs this fall as they will flare out as safety valves in the passing game. There will be lots of running and lots of opportunities for wide outs and running backs to make plays. The real question is, can they? Let’s take a look at the makeup of the units:

Running Backs

The Vet — Jonathan Gray

The New Guy — Duke Catalon

Other Candidates — Daje Johnson, Alex De La Torre, D’Onta Foreman

Incoming — Tristian Houston, Kirk Johnson, Chris Warren

First let’s break out the different running backs you’ll see on the field. Texas likely will not run a lot of fullback this fall with the new spread offense, so you will probably see Alex De La Torre a bit less. Expect to see the 6-foot-1, 243-pound senior at the goal line and in short-yardage situations. He’s bled for this team for three years and played in 33 games and every single one the last two years, but his role will change this fall. Most likely he’s opening those goal line holes for the sledgehammer D’Onta Foreman. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound sophomore is a monster and I expect he’ll get carries elsewhere, but with his size I think he’ll mostly be doing two things: 1) opening holes for the other backs, and 2) closing at the goal line. He’s going to be a handful for defenses near the end zone/first down marker, and I see him vulturing fantasy points at the 2-yard line after the other backs get the team down there.

With Texas wanting to run the ball and do it quickly, there likely won’t be a 30-carry-a-game feature back, but rather a platoon of three or so that get 10-12 each to keep everyone fresh. Still, the one who starts the game is the starter and that’s the guy both Jonathan Gray and Duke Catalon want to be. The senior Gray is the starter until he’s unseated if you ask me. Last year as a junior, the 5-foot-11, 206-pound Gray was returning from a blown Achilles and was solid, but he wasn’t the same player he was pre-injury. (A side note: my friend Rob blew his Achilles two years ago. He still can’t run and has trouble working out on that leg. He’s just stunned and amazed that Gray was able to come back to a power five conference-level of play in roughly 10 months.) He’s the first to say he didn’t feel 100% last year; but this year he’s 100% and from all accounts he’s come to the off-season ready for war. He’s the first name on everyone’s lips when asked, “who’s having the best spring?” He lives in the weight room and the film room and everyone expects him to rebound to the 2013 levels of play. I am one of those people. He’s your starter.

But watch out for Duke Catalon. I heard a story that after the staff went through spring and fall camps last year, they felt the best back on the team was Duke Catalon. For whatever reason — injuries, scheme, the desire to distance him eligibility-wise from the other backs — Catalon redshirted last year. This spring he’s battling for that starting job with Gray and not giving an inch. He’s big, strong and fast, has great hands and runs as hard as anyone on the roster. He’s had some injury issues and been in The Pit, where injured Texas players rehab with Pat Moorer and his assortment of tortures (the idea being heal quickly and get out of The Pit). But when he’s healthy he’s got another gear and another level that, from what I’ve heard, the staff doesn’t see on anyone else in the roster. He’s going to play, but it’s the backup role, at least right now.

From what it sounds like, Daje Johnson will control his own destiny on the field (both at running back and wide out). If he can figure out the playbook and do what is asked of him, he’s going to get some serious pt as a playmaker both in the backfield and at wide out. Come on, Daje. I want to see you doing what you do.

I expect the first of Tristian Houston, Kirk Johnson and Chris Warren to get the offense and blitz pick up (the single most important thing a running back needs to know; a mistake in blitz pickup can put the quarterback on a cart) is the third back to see carries this fall. But if big Mr. Foreman shows good hands, I could easily see all three of the incoming tailbacks redshirting.

But as I said, they think Catalon has something the others currently on campus do not. Maybe they see that same thing in Warren, or Kirk Johnson. If I had to pick a third back, it’s Warren, but I’m guessing at this point.

The increased intensity and level of competition have made J. Gray and Catalon better, and while it carries over into the summer, I think it’s Gray first then Catalon.

Wide Outs

The Vets — Marcus Johnson, Armanti Foreman, Jacorey Warrick

The New Guys — Lorenzo Joe, Dorian Leonard, Ty Templin, Garrett Gray, Jake Oliver

Incoming — John Burt, Gilbert Johnson, Ryan Newsome

I am going to say that the only guy of the current group who is a lock for playing time this fall is Marcus Johnson. Daje Johnson has already been discussed, and for all the talent Armanti Foreman has, he’s been in The Pit quite a bit this spring. Guys aren’t getting punished for getting hurt, but they are losing reps and time on the field to healthy players, and the oft-injured start losing the trust of the staff, because you can’t count on someone that can’t play. It’s the way it goes. Jacorey Warrick is having a really nice camp in the attempt to replace Jaxon Shipley in the slot. Similarly sized, the 5-foot-11, 172-pound junior is great in the screen game, just like Shipley … but I don’t know if he’s having a remarkable enough spring to cement himself as a starter. He’s going to play, but with all the talent coming in, I don’t know if he’s locked his spot up (more on those coming in shortly).

The guy that is having a great spring is the senior, Marcus Johnson. He was sensational in 2013, but the offense/coaching change/something just didn’t click last year. There were dropped passes when he did get throws and it was generally just a hugely underwhelming season. Johnson took it personally and, outside of Jonathan Gray, he might be having the best spring of anyone on the offense. Like Gray, he’s living in the weight room and film room and new coach Jay Norvell has really turned him around. Sometimes guys just don’t connect with a coach and, if the play this spring has been any indication, he’s really connected with Norvell. The change in offense should help him as well. In 2013 he was the deep threat (remember this? Me, too) and I think he’s going to be the go-to guy for the quarterback this year. Put his name in ink as a starter, regardless of who they play in front of him in the spring or summer.

The hottest battle on the offense is for the other wide out spot between Dorian Leonard and Lorenzo Joe. The kids have all given up the single numbers in favor of the 80s. Remember when everyone wanted a single digit number, even the defensive linemen? Texas would have a handful on each side of the ball. No more; there are only two on the entire roster right now. So watch for Nos. 84 (Joe) and 89 (Leonard) battle it out for the spot opposite Johnson. Both sophomores with less experience than Foreman or Warrick, they are nearly identical in size: Joe is 6-foot-2, 202 pounds, Leonard is 6-foot-3, 203 pounds. It’s been close, but as the spring game approaches it’s Leonard out in front. He’s a little bigger and a little quicker and right now everything is clicking for him: he’s catching the ball well, running good routes and blocking well. Very well. Both guys are going to play because this offense will need big, strong receivers outside to block downfield, but Leonard seems like he’s locking up a spot.

And he better, because the three incoming freshmen are not coming here to redshirt this fall. Gilbert Johnson has the size advantage (6-foot-4, 189 pounds) over both Joe and Leonard (as well as Daje, Warrick and everyone else), and John Burt and Ryan Newsome have another gear as far as speed, athleticism and playmaking ability. You can only go off the competition they played against, but Burt and Newsome seem very Daje Johnson-like in their ability to make people miss in the open field and take just about any pass to the house. When you factor in the endarounds, reverses and other running plays that will get the wide outs in motion and in space, these two are at the top of the list of players I want to see with the ball in their hands. The current wide outs not named Marcus Johnson have only a few more days of practice and another six weeks of off-season work to secure a spot before the competition door is opened up to the newcomers.

Get healthy, Armanti, get right, Daje and keep it up, Dorian: the kids are coming.

So …

Texas opened up the competition for every single spot on the offense this offseason/spring and everyone was told that nothing was in ink and every job was open. Every. Job. That created intensity, urgency and emotion all over the field, and that’s exactly what Charlie Strong wants from his team: intensity, urgency and emotion. With the talent coming in and the coaching staff in place to bring them along, these three ingredients are going to push the best of the best forward and get Texas back where they want to be.

Jonathan Gray is your starter with Duke Catalon a step behind. Marcus Johnson is locked in at one wide out spot and Jacorey Warrick and Dorian Leonard have the chance to secure a spot with a great spring game and solid finish to the spring semester. The kids coming in are going to push the guys who are on campus already to work even harder if they plan to hold on to their jobs, and that’s a good thing.

See you Saturday at DKR!

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